Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Importance of Reinforcement

I have been having arguments about the importance of reinforcement recently. Mostly because, once again, I find myself in a situation where I have lots of tutorials to build and next to no time to build them. The other concern: how long I will have the end-user's attention. No one wants the tutorial set for full new user training to go over a couple of hours.

So we have to decide what we can logically eliminate.

One thought - eliminate interactivity. Just have them watch movies. The docs want to sit and eat their lunch anyway.

I don't know about you - but I've never learned much watching a movie. Especially not how to use a piece of software.

A second thought - eliminate practice exercises. Educationally, I think it is a bad idea. Practically, I know they will be getting practice as soon as they hit the clinic. Creating practice exercises can be 2nd priority - once we get the nuts and bolts of the tutorials created. But we can't eliminate them

A third thought - eliminate feedback. Just give instruction and have them walk through the exercise. Not worry about providing feedback on danger areas or best practices. Not worry about explaining why they should do things in a particular way.

Cognitive Daily just published a paper on the importance of external reinforcement in learning. Their general, if uncertain, conclusion: we need external reinforcement to learn.

In the course of their argument, the authors bring up an interesting point about context:

The discrimination tasks were quite tricky in that many of the dots and bars presented were below the threshold of detection of the participants. When asked about their performance, participants reported low confidence; perhaps they were so frustrated with the difficulty of the task that they lost interest and simply were not reinforced by the task itself.

Fundamentally - the participants had no real reason to master the task outside of the experiment.

Without a deeper exploration of the tasks used in these types of experiments and a comparison of how the results vary based on the characteristics of each task, no great conclusions can be made about whether or not external reinforcement is absolutely necessary for perceptual learning to occur.

Maybe the most important type of external reinforcement is how the learner can use the skill/knowledge in "real life." Since most educators don't have control of the learner's environment outside of the classroom/online learning space - we have to rely on outside influences (policy changes, parental encouragement, monetary punishment, etc) to generate truly useful external reinforcement.

I figure if I keep following the general medical and educational rule of "First, do no harm" I should be OK.

With the lack of concrete conclusions - I'm going to follow my formal training and guts when designing instruction. That means pithy feedback captions and sounds. At least until I see research that this type of feedback prevents learning....

1 comment:

Cammy Bean said...

What if it's all practice with feedback? Donald Clark's post pointed to some recent research on this:

Of course, provide some of the context/instruction the docs will need, but embed that right into your practice exercises using realistic scenarios.

What tools are you using to build your tutorials?